Find the spot in quietest backcountry Greenwich, Connecticut, where Simmons Lane branches off Lake Avenue, and you’ll pass by a flagstone gate, a NO TRESPASSING sign, and a row of green mailboxes—one for each house on the street. These identical mailboxes are the last sign of equality you will see for a while. Beyond the gate, set deep into their land parcels along the gently curving boulevard that seems designed as much for strolling as driving, sit six houses of varying sizes and architectural styles. One of them is slated for demolition, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from its perfectly manicured grounds and the gardener snipping away at the odd weed around the gazebo. This plot of land, as it happens, is the most notorious in town. For here is scheduled to rise one of the largest single-family residences in Greenwich history: the hulking, 39,000-square-foot, bepillared country seat of a secretive Russian airport mogul named Valery Kogan. When plans for the home were first announced, in early 2008, they triggered a nimby fight the likes of which staid, patrician Greenwich has rarely witnessed. The home was seen as a garish (and possibly even illegal) affront to the town’s good taste, its owner a walking nouveau riche caricature. In March, after a legal battle and a minor dialing back of the plans, construction on the home was reluctantly approved. Only now, given the current economic climate, there are questions of whether Kogan can afford to build the place after all. Where the project was once the epitome of the boom, it may well now serve as its gilded tombstone.
Valery Mikhailovich Kogan is, by competing accounts and seemingly depending on the day of the week, either the 499th or the 157th richest man in Russia. His worth, according to the Fortune-like Russian magazine Finans, fluctuates wildly—$300 million in 2006, $90 million in 2007, $600 million in 2008. In his homeland, where oligarchs tend to be heavily gossiped-about public figures with fun holdings like soccer clubs or regional governorships, even rumors about Kogan are surprisingly sparse. He had served in the navy, come up through the ranks in Soviet times, and got rich in the chaos of the privatizations that followed the collapse of the USSR; his official bio makes reference to his “vast experience in the diplomatic field,” without elaborating. Whatever it was, in 2004 Kogan found himself with one of the strangest and cushiest jobs in Russia: a principal in East Line, the private company that controlled Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport. The company’s structure had been called by analysts “complex and nontransparent.” By 2005, East Line was embroiled in scandal. Among the accusations was a jaw-dropper, widely reported in the Russian press, about faked plane-engine repairs, billed by a subsidiary of East Line. The Russian authorities had made a move to nationalize the airport—and that’s when Kogan went house-shopping in the West. As the scandal continued to unfold, it certainly looked like the tycoon wouldn’t mind relocating Stateside not just his assets but himself. Acting through another company, Kvoda Group (an anagram, one future neighbor noted, of vodka), Kogan was about to close on a $10 million duplex at 515 Park Avenue while his wife, Olga, sized up mansions in Greenwich.
A broker reportedly took her to see the Leona Helmsley estate, which would hit the market at $125 million three years later; Olga’s associate said they didn’t want the publicity brought on by the Helmsley name. The Kogans finally zeroed in on 18 Simmons Lane, a 25,400-square-foot megamansion spread out on a seven-acre lot. The house, hidden beyond a front gate that looked remarkably like the gate from the first shot of Citizen Kane, was built in a whimsical and eclectic style, with a large dome and fairy-tale turrets; the inside was paneled in historic wood the owner had flown in from Flanders. In May 2005, the Kogans bought it, in Olga’s name, for $18.5 million.
The deal itself was on the high end for Greenwich, but certainly not a major newsmaker. The town was teeming with hedge-fund wealth. Developers fell all over themselves and each other to build palaces on spec, assured that the next deal would always be just around the corner. Retail spaces on Greenwich Avenue were approaching Manhattanlike levels. Donald Trump was fighting to build a skyscraper condo nearby.
The full scope of the Kogans’ desires, however, revealed itself only gradually. By June of the next year, Olga had obtained an interior-demolition permit and began stripping the house bare. A dealer from New York bought the wood paneling; neighbors reported architectural details being taken away by truck. It was becoming clear that the Kogans were not interested in a mere gut renovation—they were going to raze and build from scratch. Exactly what the Kogans were going to erect wasn’t revealed until two years later. When the plans appeared, it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say Greenwich gasped.
To call the plans the Kogans had presented for approval by the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission “ostentatious” would be an understatement on par with calling Leona Helmsley an extrovert. The house’s footprint would take up 54,000 square feet, doubling the existing mansion’s size. At its center would be a grand hall served by a bifurcated, lyre-shape, Titanic-style staircase and topped by a three-story-high glass dome. In inclement weather, a mechanized retractable shield would cover the dome. The basement would house a theater with a full bar, a billiards room with another bar, a Turkish bath, a Finnish bath, a massage room, a salon, a wine cellar, a game room, and two staff suites. It would be Xanadu cubed. It would be … Koganadu.